A Team Penske car won at the IRL’s first visit to the Barber Motorsport Park in Alabama, but it was the veteran Helio Castroneves who drove it, and not the victor of the first two races Will Power.
Just as predicted, the new venue proved to be a top-rate facility with plenty of fan support – but almost no potential to overtake. As a result, teams built their races around fuel strategy, some trying to do the distance in two stops and others choosing three.
Among the latter group were Power and his fellow front row starter Mike Conway, and as the race entered its final stages Power was poised in fifth place, waiting to swoop for the win if the cars ahead of him had miscalculated how far they could go on just two stops.
That group was led by Marco Andretti, still chasing his first win since his 2006 rookie season, with Castroneves, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti behind him.
But even as Andretti lapped consistently at the front of the field, on pit road his race strategist Kyle Moyer was admitting the team had got it wrong and on lap 82 of 90 he was forced to pit for a splash of fuel to make it to the finish.
Soon after, the full-course caution that would have given Andretti the victory arrived when Simona de Silvestro spun and took just long enough to get going again to trigger the safety car.
That removed any lingering doubt that the top three could reach the finish without pitting, snuffed out Power’s last chance of victory, and left Castroneves fending off Dixon for the win during a brief shoot-out over the final laps.
“Towards the end, we just had a yellow flag. I didn’t ask for that, especially when you have Scott Dixon and those guys behind you,” said Castroneves. “So I just decided to make sure do not give any opportunities for those guys, and that’s what I did.
“I felt like I had a better car than Marco, but I just couldn’t pass him. He was driving like remind me like his father, Michael. And I was just patient and waiting for an opportunity, and well, I guess we were able to be smart enough to save a lot of fuel.”
A disappointed Andretti looked for the bright side: “We have to be happy to put the Venom car into the top five, especially after our finishes on road courses last year. I think maybe we could have stretched out each of our stints a bit longer and gained on fuel one lap at a time. Helio just went longer than us each time and that was the difference at the end. But overall I think this shows we’re on the right track.”
Third-placed Franchitti said: “Will Power and I were side by side at the end there but, with so many lapped cars in between us, it was really hard to fight for the positions. It was great to see all the fans – the atmosphere here was incredible and I am looking forward to returning to this track in the future.”
Power finished fourth and retains the championship lead ahead of Castroneves, Franchitti, Justin Wilson and Dixon. He said: “It is great having Helio win which makes it three wins to start the season for Team Penske.
“In the strategy meeting before the race we talked about it and we knew that a caution in the early part of the race would not be to our favour – we made the best of it though. We are still in the points lead heading into Long Beach and I think we are going to be strong there.”
The race saw only two cautions, the first when Takuma Sato suffered a throttle failure and rolled to a halt near the pit entrance on lap 11 of 90. By then, some drivers had already made their first stops and many more took advantage of the yellow flag to follow suit.
These included Power and Conway, the Dreyer & Reinbold driver not seeing the front of the field again in the race despite a red-blooded attempt to pass beat Power out of the pits. He was eventually overtaken by team-mate Wilson and finished ninth.
Conway said: “I got a good start and was following Will Power and trying to save fuel and look after the tyres. We followed him on strategy and when we came out we were just stuck behind a big group of cars, which was a shame.
“We knew that it was going to be hard from then on and we were hoping for another yellow to help us out, but it never happened. It was a tough day and it was hard to pass people. I was able to make a couple of passes, but in the end it was getting pretty close between Justin and I and he was able to get by me. He seemed to be pretty quick.”
Wilson was indeed quick, setting the fastest lap of the race on his way to seventh place. He said: “I’m pretty happy with the result. Passing is very hard here, but I just steadily kept picking off positions. We pitted early in the race and it dropped us back a bit, but we never gave up working on the car to make it better and I’m pleased we posted the fastest lap of the race. I’m looking forward to Long Beach next week and hopefully we can move up in the points.”
For Panther, Dan Wheldon started out of position at the back after seeing his best qualifying times wiped out in punishment for causing a caution that disrupted the session. He recovered well during the race, benefiting from being one of the first to pit, and finished 11th.
He said: “It was a relatively good result – obviously this is a difficult track to overtake on, so that made it somewhat difficult, but overall the National Guard guys did a really good job in the pits and with the No. 4 car.
“It was a difficult race, especially to overtake, because even when you’d catch somebody that was slower it was still difficult to get past them. All and all it’s a good result and we’re looking forward to moving on to Long Beach.”
Less happy was Alex Lloyd, who was having his best outing for Dale Coyne Racing to date until he was shunted by Danica Patrick as she attempted an overtake and dropped to the back of the field.
He said: “We were happy to run all day and work to get into the top ten. The end result did not show how competitive we could have been. I had some understeer in the car and Danica got a good run off of turn three. She was not past me, but enough on me that we got together in turn five and I spun off track.”